Being at the LGA is a bit like travelling to a different world for a week. In my case, quite literally. My blackberry decided to go on strike the minute I hit the M27 to Bournemouth.
Nothing that my IT team or Vodaphone could do would persuade it back into action. By lunchtime, I was beginning to panic. The prospect of leaving my whole council to its own devices for a week is always quite a scary one, and enforced email silence is not something I am used to.
By mid-afternoon, I had got over it. After all, this time last year I didn’t even have a blackberry! And there is something quite sad in the sight of a room full of people tapping silently and addictively at a too-small keypad. Conferences are about people so I decided to stop fretting and get on with the serious business of meeting people.
The exhibition hall is always the place to be. It is a bit like the Spanish steps in Rome - they say that if you wait around long enough, everyone you have ever known in the whole world will walk past. Which is completely true, except if you are actually trying to find a particular person, in which case they completely vanish into thin air. That’s why most people you talk to in the exhibition keep looking around distractedly. They are looking out for that elusive colleague they need to have an important conversation with, just as soon as they can be found.
The exhibition hall also contains much to excite and entertain conference-goers. But you have to know where to look – the best toys, the best coffee and, most importantly, the smoothies, are often well hidden. I am not allowed to come home unless I bring a bag full of conference toys and sweeties, and the trick is to be able to pick them up stealthily, without having to part with your business card, or get caught up in half an hour of worthy sales-pitching.
My deputy collects pink pigs. The stress-relieving, squishy ones. I got him a really cute one this year. I shall use it next time I’m in a really bad mood and need to throw his toys around the room. There is something very satisfying about the way you can bounce a pink pig off the office walls.
In days gone by, government ministers would save up their very best and most important new policy announcements to launch in front of the collective local government audience. Not this year. But I have never heard a ministerial speech galvanise an audience in quite the way that Eric Pickles did this year; the whole conference was talking about nothing else all week. His was probably the only conference session that many of the delegates went to. It takes a brave person to venture into the very worthy workshop sessions, usually held in some far-away broom cupboard. Most people soon give up on the idea and head back to the warm collegiate embrace of the exhibition.
But those who did not attend the semi-final of the LGA Local Government Challenge missed a rare and inspirational treat. The four young, ambitious and supremely talented contenders for the first Bruce Lockart scholarship really stole the show, reminding many of us why we came into this profession in the first place. I felt really proud of local government on that day, and honoured to have been able to play a small part in the challenge’s success.
Like the day job, the LGA conference is not a nine-to-five affair. The evening activities are every bit as important as the main conference sessions. Making sure there is always a party to go to is something I have always seen as an integral part of my conference job description. And you get to meet some surprisingly interesting people at conference dinners. But after three full days of trying to stay on my four-inch heels for 14 hours at a stretch, my feet were threatening to join my blackberry on the picket line, and when somebody suggested going dancing after the gala dinner, I had to wimp out.
My one regret for the week – I completely forgot to go paddling. Oh well, the water will still be there next time. Meanwhile, I have what seems like several weeks’ work to catch up on. Just as well the blackberry leapt back into action the minute I walked back into the office.
Mary Orton is chief executive of Waverley BC